I wasn’t sure how my time at Harvard Law School would compare with my undergraduate experience at West Point. There were the obvious everyday life things, of course – the lack of uniforms, longer hair, no standing in formation at 6:30 AM every morning, and no need to call anyone sir, to name a few. And I was quite happy to leave many of these inconveniences behind. However, what worried me was that the more fundamental things about West Point, the things that made the place so special – the shared sense of purpose, the camaraderie, the historical gravity of the place – would be absent at Harvard. I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that many of these things are not just present at HLS, but they are central parts of the experience. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them, but West Point and Harvard Law School have a good deal in common.
Shared sense of duty and service to something bigger than oneself.
There is an almost palpable sense of purpose at both places – a feeling that everyone is driving towards some larger goal. At West Point this goal was more shared; we all knew we were going to commission into the Army and lead soldiers. The sense of purpose is harder to define at HLS, as people have a wide variety of interests and causes that they want to address. But there is certainly still a commonly held desire to make an impact on society through practicing law that underlies what most people do.
In both places, this creates a sense of urgency that brings out people’s best efforts day in and day out. It’s not enough to just graduate from West Point and become an officer; you owe your future soldiers and your country something better than that. It’s not enough to just graduate from HLS and become an attorney; you owe your future clients and your society something better. At both places the students understand that the role you step into upon graduating is nothing more than a chance to have an impact. However, it is up to you to make sure that once you are empowered, your impact is a worthy one.
This is exciting, because what you do every day matters. It is easy to let yourself down, to temper your own expectations in exchange for an easier experience in the present if you are only working for your own interests. However, when you’re setting out to confront some of the great problems of the world, you know you must constantly push yourself. It gives gravity to the experience. It makes the classroom a place of consequence.
I’ve seen this from another perspective as well. Before I left the Army I had the distinct privilege to serve in the Army’s Old Guard in Arlington National Cemetery. Of course there were many famous West Pointers buried there, and most people take it for granted that those in uniform are committed to an idea of service. However, I was moved to see that there are a number of notable HLS alumni in Arlington as well (Holmes, Brennan, and Blackmun are there, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will someday be buried alongside her husband there). That said something profound to me about there being many ways to serve one’s country, and many types of people needed to create a great country. The same larger sense of duty and societal responsibility animates all of these.
A sense of profession.
I really appreciated at West Point that the instructors and officers in charge of us were committed to more than teaching us material or keeping us in line (both of which they were only mostly successful at). They were shaping us into the future officers who would fill the positions they had once occupied in front of platoons, and who they may be commanding when they left the academy. Indeed, several of my company commanders were upperclassmen of mine, and I found myself working with several of my former West Point instructors at various stages in my time in uniform. There was a sense of greater ownership by the officers at the academy that made it a really special place to be. I have been pleasantly surprised to find a similar sense of profession here at HLS. Most professors are concerned with shaping the whole student, not just teaching them that day’s lesson. They care about how you think about the foundational legal material, but also about shaping you into an effective steward of the law moving forward. There is a sense of responsibility for the profession as a whole. Just as Majors and soon-to-be Second Lieutenants at the academy know they will soon be serving in the same Army, law professors and graduates of HLS know that they will soon be (or even, already are) working side-by-side in fighting to shape the system of government and law that we have. In both cases I think that’s really special.
A demanding lifestyle.
I had been warned that HLS is no cakewalk, so I wasn’t too surprised to find that I am actually busier at HLS than I was at West Point. Both places ask a lot of you in terms of time and energy. There is always more you can do, always yet another ounce of effort you can give. And while at West Point, and later in the Army, the challenge was often something you had to fight through in terms of physical weariness, at HLS it is more of a mental battle to maintain focus and to continue to engage with the ideas. (At HLS I have had to adapt my Ranger School mindset of “just keep putting one foot in front of the other” into “just keep reading one sentence after another”). In both senses the challenge is invigorating, and I am strong believer that tough times build tough people. On top of this, at both places I have found that the shared stress has created a bond between myself and my peers that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.
A historically special place.
At West Point I was inspired to think that Eisenhower, Patton, McChrystal, and Pershing all walked the same paths as I did. Current instructors told stories about taking part in the early days of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent graduates who had acted valiantly under fire came back to be honored and give speeches each year. West Point mattered in history, both distant and more recent, and this gave weight and importance to what we did there. At HLS I have found this to be true as well. Knowing who came from here and what they did in the world is nothing short of inspiring. The graduates returning for talks or teaching the classes are a constant reminder of what you can achieve. Looking up the background of some hero or villain in the headlines often reveals an HLS background – a stark reminder that coming from HLS empowers one to have a large impact, but it is up to you personally to ensure that this impact is an admirable one. It is simply impossible to deny that, at either West Point or HLS, what you do matters profoundly. I am overwhelmingly proud to know that I am a product of both of these incredible institutions, yet I am also constantly reminded that I must do much to live up to them.
Billy Wright is a 1L at Harvard Law School. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2013. Billy is a member of the Armed Forces Association.